Hands on: Microsoft's video-sharing service

Videographers now have a new Web outlet for their mini-masterpieces with the Tuesday introduction of the beta version of Microsoft's Soapbox on MSN Video video-sharing service.

After spending a few hours with the service, I'm impressed by how easy Soapbox makes uploading and sharing videos. Still, if you're seeking a big audience, your videos will likely attract more eyeballs when you post them on video-sharing leader YouTube.

And if you're looking to view videos rather than post them, Soapbox can't match the number and variety of clips you'll find on YouTube--which, considering the silliness and voyeurism prevalent on that site--might not be such a bad thing.

How to get started

If you want to try the invitation-only Soapbox beta, you have to sign up for the waiting list. When you receive your invitation in your Passport/Windows Live account, you simply click a link to open the sign-up page.

Once you've signed in with your Hotmail or MSN account, you're able to browse videos by rating, popularity, category, or tag. You can also view a list of the videos you've uploaded, see the status of the videos you're currently uploading, and edit your profile.

To upload a video, you simply give it a name, add a description (up to 400 characters), select one of 15 categories, and supply as many as five tags. You can either enter the path to the file manually or click the Browse button and select it in the 'Choose file' dialog box.

How long does it take?

In informal tests it took about 15 minutes to upload a 19.5MB video in the ASF format (the service supports AVI, WMV, MOV, MPEG 1/2/4, 3GPP, DV, H.263, and H.264 as well). You can view your video immediately after the upload completes; if you've chosen to make the video public, however, the file takes about 20 minutes to become available to others. Links are provided for pasting into a Web page--with or without an accompanying image and/or embedded player.

You can send a link to your video (or anybody else's) via e-mail. The service lets you add a comment to any video, place it on your favorites list, or report it as offensive. Other options allow you to read the comments that other users have posted on your videos, and to change the name, description, tags, and category you supplied when you first uploaded a file.

A clean interface

While Soapbox and YouTube offer similar features, including the ability to search videos by keyword, tag, or category, and to sort your search results by relevance, date added, and rating, I found the Soapbox interface much cleaner and easier to navigate than the cluttered YouTube screen. Both services limit uploads to 100MB (YouTube also limits a video's duration to 10 minutes). Soapbox currently lacks YouTube's advertisements, but you can expect some ads in the public release of the Microsoft service.

Soapbox will eventually be integrated with Microsoft's other Windows Live services, but the beta I tried lacks direct links to Spaces, Messenger, and other members of the Live family. In its current stand-alone incarnation, however, Soapbox's ease of use and clean interface will help it challenge the Web-video leaders.

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Dennis O'Reilly

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